"Remember that every application form you fill out, or interview or assessment centre you attend, is good experience. Whenever you leave an interview, try to remember the questions they asked you and take some time considering how you could have answered them better".
Jessica Tagg, former student of Beaumont Leys Secondary School and Wyggeston & Queen Elizabeth I College, Leicester
If you have been to a law firm open day, assessment centre, or completed a vacation scheme, you might have noticed the striking number of public and private school students compared to state school students. Admittedly, some firms are much better than others, but this is a problem affecting the whole legal industry.
I was a state school student in Leicester, before studying Law with Australian Law at the University of Nottingham. After graduating in 2015, I took a year out and worked at my old school. I recently completed the Legal Practice Course and I am now eagerly waiting to start my job as a Trainee Solicitor at a City firm in London.
While I can only ever speak from my own experiences in applying for vacation schemes and training contracts, these five tips should give you something to consider during the application process.
- Commercial awareness
Commercial awareness can mean many different things, but primarily it is about understanding how business works, what external factors might be currently affecting the business sector, and the knock-on effect this has for the legal industry.
If this isn’t the kind of thing you chat to friends and family about, you might be feeling a bit daunted by the phrase ‘commercial awareness’. The best thing to do is start small: jumping straight into the Financial Times can be terrifying. Start by finding out which areas of business interest you, and read around this area using free and easily accessible news sites, such as BBC News. For example, I started by reading about cybercrime, which was a big issue when I was writing applications, but also something I found very interesting: the more I read about cybercrime, the more I started to realise how it impacted on business, and what changes the business sector was having to make to combat this threat. Once you feel more comfortable with the area, ask your university library if they have a subscription to the Financial Times, or if they distribute issues for free on campus, to get a deeper insight into the commercial world. The Economist is a useful source too, since it produces articles on commercial themes, rather than trying to produce constant up-to-date news.
- University careers service
Make the most of the opportunities that your university careers service offers. Many universities will provide mock interview sessions, mock assessment days and application help, which will result in you getting useful feedback from people who know what they are talking about: I got some useful feedback on my presentation skills which really helped me during assessment days. But bear in mind that the careers service is likely to be generic and may not be able to provide you with the most law-focused advice. So, try speaking to friends on your course who have also submitted applications and attended interview/assessment days to find out about their experiences.
- Open days
Attend as many firm open days as you can! Each open day will teach you a bit more about the legal industry and so they are a really useful way of getting an insight if you don’t have legal work experience or a vacation scheme on your CV. Take a notepad along with you and make a note of things you learn throughout the day – this can then be referred to during any future applications. For example, on an application form, I would always take up a box dedicated to work experience and title it “open days”, then list all the open days I had attended and a sentence or two about what I learned from them. Firms will often reimburse travel expenses for their open days, and if they don’t offer this outright, don’t be afraid to ask!
- Ask for feedback
If you are unsuccessful at an interview or assessment centre, the firm should always offer you feedback. If they do not, be sure to ask the graduate recruitment team for some. This feedback is the best insight you can get into your performance, and it’s open to all, so don’t waste this opportunity. Whatever your feedback, remember that you can always work on your performance, and it is better to know your weaknesses ahead of your next interview or assessment centre. Remember, every firm is looking for a different type of candidate, so what one firm considers a deal-breaker may not be as important to the next firm.
- Use the social mobility networks that are open to you
If your school is a Future First member, ask your teachers to check if any former students signed up to the network work in law. They can contact that student on your behalf to ask if they can mentor you or offer any advice. And you can never have too much of a good thing: there are plenty of networks offering slightly different focuses, so join as many as you can! A legally-focused network that I would particularly recommend joining is Aspiring Solicitors. The founder, Chris White, does an excellent job of personally answering your questions about applications, reading your applications before you send them off and organising insight days at law firms across the City.
Remember that every application form you fill out, or interview or assessment centre you attend, is good experience. Whenever you leave an interview, try to remember the questions they asked you and take some time considering how you could have answered them better – this will help you in the future if you ever get asked the same question in another interview.
Finally, good luck and don’t give up!